Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The arrest of Henry Louis Gates

So, the arrest of Henry Gates is causing a bit of a stir. These kinds of things are like word problems (or "story problems" as I've heard them called) in mathematics, though. The first thing you need to do is figure out what matters, and toss out the rest of the information as irrelevant.

There are always competing narratives in these cases. The police officer will have you believe that he was honestly concerned and polite and deeply respectful of Mr. Gates, and yet, for no reason, Mr. Gates became belligerent.

And Mr. Gates would undoubtedly like you to believe that he was cooperative and friendly, but the officer was rudely aggressive and harassing a man he knew was innocent.

And here's the thing: none of that matters. That's the part of the word problem where they tell you a red car leaves Los Angeles; it doesn't matter that the car is red, and it doesn't matter that the place it left was LA.

Look, I don't care how Gates or the officer acted. The officer was going in to a possibly threatening situation, and was probably hyped up, and Gates, sitting at home, having had a long, frustrating day, had reason to be pissed off at any intrusion. People have been rude with less provocation, and the rudeness shouldn't enter into it.

What matters is this: the police report tells us that, in the face of a hostile situation, the police officer specifically tried to draw Mr. Gates outside. And, surprise, surprise, once he had him outside, he could claim he was creating a disturbance, and arrest him.

This, by itself, is an abuse of power.

Now, there are a lot of people out there acting shocked - shocked! - that, if the officer is to be believed, Gates was argumentative. "You should always be calm and cooperative when dealing with the police!"

Well, in general, you should. Police are fully aware that cops have been killed in routine situations all the time. They've been killed investigating breakins, they've been killed at traffic stops, they've probably been killed helping young children get kittens out of trees.

And it doesn't matter how wrong or unfair it is if a cop makes a horrible mistake, and thinks you're going for a weapon, and tries to defend himself from a potentially deadly situation. It's still going to ruin the rest of the day for both of you.

So, yes, it's wise to be calm and cooperative. And let's throw in how you should try to be friendly, because even a bad cop can be the one who ends up taking a bullet trying to protect others.

But there's a whole bunch of folks who seem to be okay with a police officer making a pointless arrest, or even hurting someone needlessly, if the victim was rude or nasty to the cop. Those folks seem to have forgotten that we live in a free society, and the first rule of living in a free society is that the government, and its agents, must leave you alone unless you're doing something that hurts others.

When a cop can smack someone around, or use a Taser on them, or even arrest them just to waste a few hours of their time, without a compelling reason, that's a violation of civil liberties. Allowing that behavior is a violation of the very notion of freedom.

And that's all we need to know about the arrest of Mr. Gates. A police officer provoked Mr. Gates into coming to the door of his residence so that he could arrest Mr. Gates, when there was no need to do so.

Don't think I don't sympathize with the officer to some extent. I'll give the officer the benefit of the doubt and assume that Mr. Gates was quite rude to him. And when you're confronted with rudeness when you're trying to do your job, and when you're already hyped up because you're going into a potentially dangerous situation, it can be really upsetting.

But that's all the more reason that he should have kept his head, and either de-escalated the situation himself, or called in one of the other officers who were present to assist him. He could have let the pressure out of the situation, and maybe even turned it positive.

Instead, he got to make a pointless arrest, and a few headlines that he and his fellow officers will long have cause to regret.

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